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200 Oxford Street
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Memories of 200 Oxford Street by Trevor Hill

This page is an abridged version of a chapter from Trevor's book 'Over the Airwaves' and is used here with his permission.

Trevor Hill
J.B. Priestley came into the talks studio and, as usual, handed me his raincoat and old trilby. I bade him good evening as I held back the sound-proof doors between the control cubicle and studio. It was the usual routine. On the studio table were a glass of water and a set of head-phones, for he liked to broadcast with these plugged into 'Local Output' which enabled him to hear his own voice at the microphone. It was a ring main system common to all BBC Studios - Point 1, Home Service; Point 2, Forces Programme et cetera, until you reached Point 8, Local Output, then there was a Point 9 for Talkback from recording.

The great man donned the headphones, took a sip of water and then looked up. On my side of the soundproof observation window I nodded ready to take the level of his voice. He read just the first line of his script then stopped as usual whilst, from my side, I switched to Point 9 for a word with the engineer in the disk recording channel.

'Hello, recording. J.B. Priestley and Britain Speaks!'

Before I could say, 'We'll start in ten seconds from now,' a chirpy voice came across my cubicle loudspeaker.

'Good God, is that old gas-bag in again?'

John Boynton Priestley loomed large as, this time, he opened his own studio doors and strode out. My mistake was that I'd left his studio head-phones switched to Point 9!

'I don't come to the British Broadcasting Corporation to be called a gas-bag!' he declared in stern Bradfordian tones - and left.

To get into and out of the BBC's technical areas in what had been this bargain basement of Peter Robinson's department store, and from where the Corporation now conducted most of its Overseas Broadcasting business, it was necessary for everyone, staff included, to show a pass to the men on twenty-four hour security. As I tore along towards that area, I was fortunate enough to meet one of the Presentation Department senior staff.

'Oh sir!' I exclaimed in anguish, and explained what had happened.

'That is rather regrettable,' came the mild reply. 'I will deal with this.'

Fortunately, the injured party in his anger couldn't find the pass he had produced not ten minutes earlier in order to get into the studio area.

'Yes, yes, I know who you are, Mr Priestley, Sir, but I do have to see your pass, Sir, on leaving as well as entering,' said the distant voice of Security, by which time Presentation had caught up with the celebrated man. He apologised profusely, and we were back in the studio again.

'Hello, recording. Britain Speaks.'

When asked for a voice level, Mr Priestley leant forward and said, 'I've been a bit of a bugger! That alright for level?'

Amongst ourselves we junior Programme Engineers often referred to this regular series as 'JB Spouts'. To accord him just and proper dues, Priestley was one of the great broadcasters and his was certainly the voice that braced so many listeners in those dark days of 1940. Now in 1943, however, Priestley was to be joined at 200 Oxford Street by two other distinguished men at the microphone, Wickham Steed and Howard Marshall, the latter becoming head of the War Report unit.

When I think of Mr Steed, I immediately hear the proud note which crept into the voice of BBC overseas announcer, Albert Moor, as he declaimed at a particularly exciting and tense moment in the conduct of war, 'And here is Wickham Steed to give you some un-interesting details about the Allied landings in Sicily!'

When, tactfully, I mentioned what he'd just said, our Albert went 'bananas', in common parlance.

'But that's typed in the effing script'. It is in-the-script!'

Timings and Frequencies The timing of programme durations and announcements was of the essence on the various Overseas Services, Pacific, Eastern, African, and perhaps most important of all, the North American service. These countries re-broadcast many of the programmes originated by the BBC in London on their own transmitters, so the Overseas announcers at 200 Oxford Street had to be really on their toes and watching the studio clock when it came to various programme junctions. There was, for example, a twenty or thirty second 'build up' for all radio stations about to relay a BBC programme and during this, our Mr Moor would say something like 'This is the African Service of the BBC, Broadcasting on the 18 metre band, the 21 metre band, the 49 metre band…'

I cannot recall the precise frequencies now, but this sort of thing had to be announced at regular intervals. At precisely twenty or thirty seconds into this 'build up' the programme from London would begin its transmission. These metre band announcements were quite frightening things to tackle - until the announcers became used to them and then they became very boring indeed. One day when I was working in the Continuity Studio with our Albert, to break the monotony he flicked the microphone key on and off in quick succession in between yet another of those metre band announcements - only he got things slightly out of sync. In other words, his mic was 'live' when he thought it was 'dead'. What our listeners heard their end was: 'This is the African Service of the BBC Broadcasting on (pause) ... hat bands, (pause) ... brass bands, (pause) ... elastic bands!'

I rather imagine that Mr Grenfell Williams, who was in charge of that particular Overseas Service, heard the announcement himself, for when I last met Mr Moor on the London Underground, he had become more successful in quite another profession - insurance.
The Epilogue My job, when I started work at 200 Oxford Street in the Continuity Studios, was to play music on gramophone records besides complete programmes recorded by the BBC on seventeen-inch 'slow speed' discs. That was in the days before microgrooves had been invented. The BBC slow speed records would have things like Front Line Family recorded on them. Then there was the Epilogue. On a particular Sunday evening when I was working in the Continuity Studio for the Pacific Service I had a very nice Australian announcer on duty with me, Isabel Ann Shead. The trusting Ann turned to me and asked what was next on that day's Routine Transmission Schedule. I consulted the document.

'Oh, it's the old E-pill-o-gog,' I replied facetiously.

Miss Shead went into action.

'This is the Pacific Service of the BBC.'

We were allowed the slightest reverential pause for such a Sunday transmission.

'The E-pill-o-gog!' declared the good lady for all to hear.

In our Overseas Presentation Department, situated two or three floors above our underground studios, all 'gaffs' were carefully noted and displayed the following day. I went to explain to the young lady who did the typing that it was all my fault. She couldn't stop laughing, but the head of Presentation, Mr Tom Chalmers, wasn't so amused.

Presentation In spite of my misdemeanours and undoubtedly those of other young staff, Tom Chalmers was to help a lot of us along in our Corporation careers. He was heading the team of announcers for all the Overseas Networks including people like Joan Griffiths, Marjorie Anderson, Margaret Hubble, Georgie Henschel, Sanday Wilshin and Mary Malcolm. On the male announcing team were the dashing Franklin 'Jingles' Engelmann, Guy Belmore, Roy Williams and Philip Robinson.

I always enjoyed working with Philip who originated from Bradford. One of the 'standby' records we had in the studio in case of a breakdown was entitled Dance of the Daisies, and if the programme did go off the air, as sometimes happened, Philip would pass a hand across his suffering brow, murmuring, 'Oh, not those darned Daisies again!'

It was Philip Robinson, that kindest wartime colleague, who in the very dead of night allowed me to speak into a BBC microphone as I read an announcement for him to the North American continent. His boss, Tom Chalmers, paid us a visit just before our shift ended.

'Heard a new voice on the Network. Quite pleasant too. Better when it is a little deeper!'

He departed with never a glance in my direction.

During another night shift, having come up for air to the BBC canteen, which was on the ground floor, Mr Chalmers paused at my table.

'I think,' he said quietly to me and to me alone, 'the next time you put on those Columbia Blue Label recordings of Delius, it would be better to play the movements in the order the composer intended!'

Undoubtedly the most dramatic of confrontations between the Head of Overseas presentation and this engineer occurred at the very door of Red Continuity. We literally collided. In the split second silence Mr Chalmers looked suddenly alarmed.

'What's happened to the programme?'

I too heard nothing. The slow speed recording which should have been going out on transmission at that very moment was tucked under my arm. I'd lifted the pick-up from the turntable, put the record back into its cover and was now on my way with it to the Recorded Programmes Library where such things were kept - but only before or after they had been broadcast. I have always prided myself on keeping a tidy studio!

***

It was the kind and understanding Tom Chalmers who realised that the young girl he'd heard when telephoning her wartime boss had a lovely voice. He therefore had this secretary transferred to his own department, then suggested to producer Noel Iliff that perhaps Miss Jean Metcalfe might be invited to read a poem or two in his Chapter and Verse programmes. Within a short space of time, someone else was typing announcements whilst Jean was reading them on the General Overseas Service of the BBC, and when her boss hit on an idea of a series of record request programmes for the troops abroad, who better than Jean Metcalfe to announce Forces Favourites. My contribution was to play-in the records requested, besides finding a suitable signature tune for the series. The André Kostelanetz version of With a Song in my Heart was to have special connections for Jean when Forces Favourites became Family Favourites after the war ended.

It was the studio microphone key which gave the very experienced Joan Griffiths a nasty moment one day when she was doing Forces Favourites. The announcers had to keep a presentation log book, noting the starting and finishing times of each and every programme, besides other information. We'd recently had a spate of incorrect labelling on several wartime commercial gramophone records and when Joan announced, 'Irene sends her love to Corporal Jones somewhere in Egypt and wants "Just to be Near You"...' I put the record on.

After a moment Joan declared, 'I'm sure that's not the tune. Fade it out ... Fade it out!'

With that, Joan moved the heavy log book to one side, inadvertently placing the edge of it down on the microphone key, and in the silence that followed the end of my 'fade', Miss Griffiths was then clearly heard to cry, 'No! I'm a bloody fool. Put it on again, dear. Quickly! Put it on again!'

Back came the long introduction to the melody and then the vocalist began the refrain, 'Just to be Near You...'

The General Overseas postbag some two or three weeks later was bulging with congratulatory letters from the various Services all saying roughly the same thing; how splendid and heart-warming it was to be that near to a charming BBC announcer.

Hobby My own BBC Programme Engineer boss was the most understanding of men - shortish, not so much hair on top, very expressive and truth-searching eyes behind those glasses and often given to producing a crisp white handkerchief, which he would drape between chin and shoulder before taking his violin out of the case and bowing away with great flourishes.

'Vivaldi?' I once ventured to enquire.

'My arse,' replied E. St. Clair-Hobbins pausing precisely on the beat. 'Hobby' was a born manager of men - and women too - of a whole host of junior and senior programme engineers. He knew precisely what each of us was up to at most times of the night and day; that which we jolly well should have done, that which we ruddy well should not have done.

Trevor Hill, Michael Loftus, Peter Francis, Alan Gowdey (who was to become Canon A. Gowdey), Ken Hicks and one or two others came into the latter category. Well, you had to break the monotony of those long wartime nightshifts at 200 Oxford Street. If you were scheduled to work in the studios rather than in Continuity there would often be two or three hours to kill between looking after those who came in to broadcast for the BBC.

Whilst the Germans were using magnetic tape for recording purposes in wartime, the British were still mainly recording on disc with a coated acetate surface cut by a stylus, or occasionally on what looked like a large spool of fuse-wire, or best of all on film.

The Marconi-Stille There was another system.
Marconi-Stille recorder
Part of the job was to go into a special technical area and load up an awesome-looking machine known as a Marconi-Stille. This H.G. Wellsian device recorded and played back an enormous spool of steel tape far slimmer in width than today's audio cassettes. Once loaded and started up, the tape, being made of very thin steel, acted as a conductor of electricity. When in motion the tape triggered off a mercury-discharge relay. You could see it dipping into a container of mercury and emitting brilliant blue flashes of light as it controlled the speeds of the right and left-hand spool motors. We seemed to use this wondrous machine for transmitting such things as the News in Marathi - an Indian dialect broadcast by the Eastern Service of the BBC.

I had a little spot of bother with that machine. I had loaded up the large spool, not realising that since recording the News in Marathi no one in the recording section had wound the steel tape back to the beginning. So, in all innocence, I threaded up the machine and as the red light came on, so I started the News transmission.

Mind you, I thought it sounded a little odd because each bulletin in that language always began and ended with a sort of sung prayer. It went: 'Muzhab nahin sikhata apa mein bair rakhna', or put quite literally another way, 'Religion not teaches between in animosity to keep'. You may of course already have worked that out for yourself. Frankly I was more familiar with the BBC's variation of the same theme: 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation'.

If like me, however, you are not entirely familiar with the Indian language and a Marathi prayer, then you are also unlikely to realise if you are playing a tape backwards!

When I had programmes on steel tape to put out during the long night- shifts, I'd turn off the lights above the large machine. Transmitting in the darkness was just as exciting as that film scene in which Frankenstein's monster has 20,000 volts of flashing blue light belted through the iron bolt embedded in his neck. Even better, if that steel tape broke you couldn't glue it, you had to weld it! There was a welding device on each machine, besides a pair of goggles. I became an expert tape-welder - just as broadcaster Teresa MacGonnagle, who was then a girl in the Control Room, became the expert with a soldering iron on really intricate technical wiring jobs. The chaps managed to grin and bear it since, occasionally, Teresa brought in her iron or toaster for them to repair. My welding handiwork was displayed over the Christmas of 1943 when both Red and Green Network Continuity suites were decked out with yards and yards of steel 'paper chains'.

The Home Guard and the General Hobby sent me on an Engineering course. Upon my return, now a Technical Assistant, Class 2, I was promoted from playing records and doing effects to sitting at the Studio Control Panel.

There were also duties with the BBC's HQ Home Guard unit, which began with a parade. For some strange reason we lined up in alphabetical order: Hill, Hobbins, and House, medium, short and very tall. It was good to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hobby. I used to glance in his direction and think how reassuring it would be if he came into the Services with me when it was my time to go; he was a really reliable man who had proved himself a splendid CO to his civilian staff in the Programme Engineering Department.

Most of those Talk studios at 200 Oxford Street were small affairs; a studio and a Control Cubicle, each about ten feet square. It was to be a Home Guard evening for me the day the General arrived to broadcast, supported by half-a-dozen military men and all with red shoulder tabs. Private Hill took a firm stand.

'I'm sorry, gentlemen. Three or four can stay here in the cubicle but you must leave room for the producer. The rest of you must wait outside.'

The General asked me my name.

'Quite wight, Pwivate Hill, Quite wight!' declared Montgomery.

Radio Newsreel It was Peter Pooley, as Overseas News Talks Editor, who thought up the idea of a newsreel for radio, an idea that was to prove an outstanding development in broadcast journalism. By the time I came to join the ranks of Radio Newsreel, it was an established success. The twice-nightly editions were relayed by an enormous number of American stations for the Reel had become one of the major sources of war news for the American continent.

To package these North American editions, in view of their undoubted prestige, we were soon to 'head' the programme's signature tune, Imperial Echoes, with another André Kostelanetz recording, this time, the fanfare opening to Melodies from Victor Herbert: 'Tara-La, tara-la, lar-a-laar! ' Then came the Canadian voice of announcer Byng Whitaker.

'Whilst Britain awaits another dawn, we bring you news from the Battle Fronts of the World in Radio Newsreel!'

Then followed Imperial Echoes. That entire opening was copied onto a BBC Watts acetate disc, one of our own recordings, together with Byng's transatlantic voice.

One memorable night, on went the Red transmission light. Recorded Programme assistant Charles Farmer put on the recorded opening sequence. Lovely fanfare:

'Whilst Britain awaits - kerwark-awaits-kerwark-awaits-kerwark . . .'

What a moment to have a repeating groove. I quickly fade out the offending disc and give Mr Whitaker a Green light - his cue to do the 'menu' for Newsreel tonight.

'In this edition, our gallant Russian Allies ...'

Slowly the quiver in his voice breaks into a chuckle and then into the sort of uncontrollable laughter only contained within a large man. We are taken off the air by the Control Room.

'Yes, yes,' I say over the telephone. 'He is quite recovered now! Give us back our transmission!'

Even without that incident, Radio Newsreel was an exciting programme on which to work, hearing stories coming in from such War reporters as A.R. (Phil) Phillips, who was with a BBC Mobile Recording Unit even before the collapse of France, also Richard Dimbleby, Chester Wilmot, Frank Gillard, reporters who were right there in the field of battle. Sometimes there was a despatch from American correspondent, George Hicks, who was on the Allied convoys at sea. The BBC's War Report Unit came with another well-known voice in Broadcasting, that of Howard Marshall whom I've already mentioned.

Those North American editions of Radio Newsreel on Red network, which we broadcast at 2345-2400 hours GMT and then from 0300-0315 hours, seemed to highlight the talents of reporters, writers, editors and producers. How poor, it seemed to me, was to be the later coverage of the Falklands Campaign by comparison.

Whilst adrenaline was generated in all of us by the North American editions, it was nice to be able to relax more in the preparation of Radio Newsreel for the Pacific Service edition, which was broadcast from 0700 to 0725 GMT. Then there was time for pre-broadcast talking. Newsreel producer George Innes, who began his BBC career as a boy messenger, would discuss with Ian Messiter the series he wanted to do once this lot was over. Something about popular ballads mixed with Minstrel songs. It was George's dream, which was to become a very successful Television reality with The Black and White Minstrel Show.

And Ian, one of the Recorded Programme assistants? He was always doing conjuring tricks or something exciting to amuse the younger members of staff.

'I'll stand behind you and together we take d-e-e-p breaths. On the count of ten, hold it!'

You did and passed clean out for a magic moment.

***

The nearest most of us on the Reel were to come to the physical look, and indeed the actual whiff of war was on September 27th 1944, the day Canadian reporter Stanley Maxted reached Nijmegen and, with the last of the few, got finally out of that hell that was Arnhem. He came straight as he was, in a strained and stained state, to 200 Oxford Street and broadcast 'live' well almost live after all he had endured.

'They came out because they had nothing left to fight with except their bare hands, maybe,' he said.

D-Day Only a few months earlier, I'd been on duty at 200 Oxford Street as Programme Engineering shift-leader when Tom Chalmers' presentation assistant, Sybil Hall, phoned the Programme Engineering office. She told me to get the News studio ready for an important transmission. On the way, I waited at the Recorded Programmes library for an army dispatch rider to arrive from Bushey Heath, which I knew to be the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander. I switched everything on, then set up the disc recording marked AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service) on one of the turntables. I knew what had occurred as I heard the first few seconds.

I was joined by Tom Chalmers. After a very long wait, because of weather conditions, a somewhat nervous-looking John Snagge arrived with two other BBC senior staff in tow. We settled John in the News studio. Then came the go-ahead.

'This is London! London calling in the Home, Overseas and European Services of the BBC!'

I already knew what was coming next from hearing the start of that recording.

'People of Western Europe! A landing was made this morning on the coast of France!'

On that morning of June 6th, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower told us that this was 'D' Day. There had obviously been a time for propaganda but now it was time for absolute truth. The BBC gave the clearest of instructions to all editors, writers and production staff, even down to my own level of responsibility, on how War Report material should be treated once the Invasion began. If a reporter used a phrase like 'fighting today', it was essential to state when the despatch was recorded and where, for instance in Normandy, off direct transmission from that area, or an actual recording made on location with the background of an actual battle. It seemed to me a far cry from Marching On.

And it was. The first of our correspondents to speak from the soil of France, on June 8th, was Guy Byam. He was something of a hero to us for he'd already survived the torpedoing of the Jarvis Bay and later, in the course of the Allied Invasion, he was to swim the River Rhine. The third time, Guy wasn't to be so lucky. He was reported missing in the 'Rose of York', a flying fortress, which took part in a raid over Berlin less than a year later.

Byam's Invasion despatch was followed the same day by Chester Wilmot; 'We came by Glider.' Then it was the turn of Richard Dimbleby doing a recorded commentary from an aircraft over the coast of France.

On June 17th we broadcast Michael Standing's eyewitness account of the visit of His Majesty the King to Normandy. Yes, it certainly was an exciting time to be working on Radio Newsreel. There were of course lighter moments before and after 'D' Day. From time to time those of us in Programme Engineering were down at the Stage Door Canteen, broadcasting such celebrities as Fred Astaire, Jack Buchanan, Dinah Shore, Noel Coward, and Beatrice Lillie.

The very day after 'D' Day, and with that veteran of the best of broadcasting Cecil Madden as our producer-in-charge, the BBC launched the Allied Expeditionary Forces programme. It ran from June 7th 1944 until over a year later, with not only the BBC's resources but also those of NBC and CBS in America and those of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Gerry Wilmott was already with us at 200 Oxford Street producing programmes for Canadian listeners to the General Overseas Service. From a small studio in nearby Ramilies Place, I'd often balance a sextet accompanying the lyrical voice of Corporal Edmund Hockridge who, in post-war London, was to star in The Pyjama Game. Once the AEF programme was launched, we had things on a really large musical scale with three bands based in and around the London area. The American musicians were directed by Captain Glenn Miller, the Canadians by Robert Farnon of the same military rank, and for the British band, Sergeant George Melachrino.

Cecil Madden's brief was not only to give the Allied Expeditionary Force entertainment and all-important News, but also to link them with their homelands. Working on those Forces programmes proved helpful to me and to Gerry Wilmott, for we were to meet up and to work together again with another Broadcasting Service for the troops, this time on German soil once the war was over.

But let's go back to that disc recording of General Dwight Eisenhower, which dramatically announced the long-awaited invasion of Europe. Funny, but in all the excitement of 'D' Day the AFRS recording was left sitting in the record rack above the turntables in the News studio. I discovered it myself a full day later, having returned there after the early morning launch of the AEF service from studios in Portland Place. In my usual efficient and hygienic manner, I decided to tidy up that studio.

It was long after the war ended that someone in the BBC did a bit of careful checking up. Who had been on duty that sixth day of June 1944 when one of the most historic moments in Broadcasting had happened? Now Hobby had a delightful secretary during those war years, Veronica Manoukian, who managed to keep most of us cheerful as she dished out extra shift duties from Management. Veronica went on to the BBC's Transcription Service after the war had ended to do great work in that department. No, Veronica would never have split on me - although had she made the discovery she would have said to herself, 'H'm, that heel, Hill!'

By one way or another I got the message. Would Hill kindly return the Eisenhower 'D' Day recording to the BBC's Recorded Archives section? First, I took a copy!